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Are Projectionists Dinosaurs in the Age of Digital Cinema?

Are Projectionists Dinosaurs in the Age of Digital Cinema?

In the very early days of cinema, audiences were indifferent to the content of films. It didn’t matter whether they were watching an onrushing train, the electrocution of an elephant or tree leaves moving in the breeze. The real star was the technology itself.

Hosted mainly in fairgrounds and amusement parks, cinema was the exhibition of the latest invention in the field of photography, and films simply functioned as a demonstration of the cinématographe’s capabilities. This is the main reason why in cinema’s early days, film screenings took place in full light: the eyes of the audience used to continuously move back and forth, from the screen to the projectionist operating his wondrous machine, which was located in the very center of the screening venue. 

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As people’s curiosity towards the cinématographe began to fade, those involved in the making of moving images had to find new strategies in order to stay relevant in the fin de siecle entertainment business. The gimmick that turned out to be the most successful in terms of audience response was turning cinema into a storytelling medium, a sort of mechanically-reproducible theater.

As a result, film content (such as plot and characters) became more and more the point of the show, and a series of dramatic changes took place in the realm of film production, distribution and exhibition. Both the projector and the projectionist had to disappear from the audience’s consciousness in order to make the immersion into a fictional world easier for the spectator. Projectionists were relocated behind the last row of seats and the screenings began to take place in complete darkness with live or recorded music to cover the noise made by the projector. 

As Jean-Michel and Marc, two film projectionists hired by Locarno Film Festival 2014 for screening 35 mm prints at Ex Rex Cinema, told Indiewire recently, “as film projectionists, we work in the shadows, locked in our booth: we are not the stars.”

But what does film projectionists’ work consist of, exactly? They have to get the film print from the deposit and take it to the projection booth. Usually, every single film print to be screened has been previously cut and divided into film reels of about 500 meters each, so once the projectionist has all the film reels, he or she has to check if they are in good order and in good condition. In order to reconstruct the whole film print from the various 500 meter chunks, two projectors positioned side by side are required. The first film reel has to be mounted on projector one, the second on projector two (the third film reel will be mounted on projector one right after the first film reel is finished, and so on). 
When the lights go out in the theater, the projectionist turns on projector one and the screening starts. The projection of a 500 meter film reel takes about 18 minutes at 24 frames per second (sound film speed), so when the film reel mounted on projector one is about to end, projector two loaded with the next film reel is activated. These 18 minute shifts between projector one and projector two go on until all the film reels have been projected.

All the film projectionists interviewed during Locarno Film Festival 2014 agree that there’s simply too much to do to just sit back and enjoy the show. Since the projectionist’s duty is to guarantee the best image and sound quality throughout the screening, they must be attentive and ready to fix any problems that might arise in lens focus, image cropping and sound volume while at the same time making sure that the projectors are working fine.

“We are always so busy we never get bored, even when the movie is a bad one,” said Raphael, the projectionist at Cinema Rialto, “Even if it sure is a solitary work, we don’t really have time to feel lonely in our booth.”

In general, they would prefer to work without too much attention from filmgoers. “A film projectionist is someone who works for the spectator, allowing him to experience a film in the best quality,” said Jean-Michel. “It is the very nature of this job: if I do my job well and the screening is good, nobody will ever turn his head towards my booth. It is only when the sound is bad, the image out of focus or the shift between projectors goes wrong that people are aware of me. So being ignored by the audience is actually a sort of compliment for me.”

Film projectionists generally consider themselves as the last link in the filmmaking chain: providing a good screening for the public is a way of exalting the work of all those who contributed their creative effort in the filmmaking process – not only the director and the actors, but also the director of photography, the camera operator, the soundman, the composer, the make-up artists, the costume designers and the rest of the team.

But occasionally, they appreciate it when their work is acknowledged. Jean-Michel recalled a private screening of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” organized in Cannes by Clint Eastwood: “Mr. Eastwood wanted to show ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ to a bunch of close friends of his during Cannes Film Festival. It was a beautiful print he personally owned, and I was in charge of the projection. After the screening, Mr. Eastwood – the film’s director and star – came to my booth to shake my hand and thank me for the show. It was really amazing, extremely gratifying,” said Jean-Michel.

As the Locarno film projectionists were narrating professional stories and anecdotes, their tone turned bittersweet, if not plain melancholic because of the changing times and the fact that projectionists are no longer essential to the cinematic experience.
“I started out being an assistant to my father, who worked as a film projectionist for most of his life. Now it is all over…” said Jean-Michel “Digital projection has won, and now film projectionists are a thing from the past, a mere curiosity. We are sad dinosaurs, we are about to be extinct.”

Marc shares his colleague’s pessimism. “It is over. Film projection is dead. 99% of the movies at Cannes this year were projected in DCP and, you know, Cannes is supposed to be the ‘Festival International du Film’! So, as you can see, there is no future for film projection. Sure there are festivals such as Locarno or Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, but I am happy that my son didn’t become a projectionist like me: now film projection is just something that you can do as a hobby, it isn’t a real job anymore,” said Marc.

At this point, though, a very matter-of-fact question spings to mind: is it so difficult for a film projectionist to adapt and become a DCP operator?
“DCP is not difficult at all. Basically, it is a matter of uploading the content of a hard disc to a server, and then press ‘Start’. Of course, I might be oversimplifying things for rhetorical purposes… Anyway, many of us ‘old timers’ have been doing DCP projections in the past few years, but it would be more correct to say that it is the computer that does all the job: we sit there and do some minor surveillance,” said Raphael.

“I think this is why most of us film projectionists here are retired or took on other jobs outside cinema: we don’t put our hands in the machine anymore, we have no clue about what’s going on in the big server. For most of us, DCP is just not fascinating enough. DCP is easy. It is too easy. But I guess this is the so-called ‘march of the progress.’ Making things easier is what technological progress and the whole digital revolution aim to do, so there’s nothing we can do about it, right?”

[Editors’ Note: With the exception of Jean-Michel, the names of the projectionists have been changed because they didn’t want to be identified.]

This article is part of a series written by members of the 2014 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.

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